I Talked To A Financial Psychologist To Get Through My $$$ Hang-Ups

Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
I’ve written about personal finance for the past decade. I can talk about the pitfalls of credit cards, savvy ways to save money, and how to recognize and fight against the gender wage gap. I’ve worked with some of the best experts in the business, sitting down and having one-on-one conversations about investing, finance, and how to best write about their insights. I often informally counsel my friends on how to manage their money, and I'm proud to be the go-to source for acquaintances to ask about how to find an accountant, how to deal with freelancer taxes, and how to begin researching investment options.

But there’s a flip side I don't talk about with anyone. I would rather talk about how many people I’ve slept with than how much money I spend in a week. When I was working a stressful job a few years ago, even the mail carrier would know when I was having a particularly tough week by the number of packages from JCrew.com and Bloomingdales.com he would drop on my desk. On some mornings, I've sometimes swiped my credit card for $15 worth of iced coffee before I even reach work. And then there’s my invoicing habit: As a freelance writer, it’s up to me to invoice after assignments, and there have definitely been times when I’ve left money on the table simply because I lose track of when, how much, and whom I needed to invoice.

I see this. I recognize this. And I hate these habits. I know a disorganized, all-over-the-place bank account makes me stressed out. I also know I want to buy a home in the near future, and I’m so worried that my haphazard spending and saving will make it impossible to ever get my down payment together.

In short, I need help. But I don’t need a financial education — I know what I’m doing wrong. Which was why I was so intrigued to hear about financial therapy.
Financial therapy is a relatively new field that combines the nuts-and-bolts “this is what you should do with your cash” advice you would receive from a financial advisor with the "this is how you can reframe your emotions” redirecting you’d expect from a particularly hands-on cognitive-behavioral therapist.

“A financial therapist is an expert who specializes in helping people navigate the complex interplay between money, emotions, and relationships — they help people think, feel, and behave with money as a way to improve overall well-being,” explains Megan Ford, a social worker and president of the Financial Therapy Association. “It’s not just about the numbers — money involves our beliefs and our values.”

This was the first time someone explained my money issues in a way that made sense. I knew deep down that money was rooted in my emotional life, but I’d never had someone explain it so clearly. Add that to growing up in a family that didn’t talk about money, plus a freelance career that made my salary swing wildly from year to year, and you have me: confused, freaked out, and aiming to exert the little control I have over cash by doing self-destructive things like holding onto invoices for months on end and spending an unexpected cash windfall on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree.

And while financial therapy often functions like real therapy, complete with weekly sessions, after speaking to just a few financial therapists, I learned some helpful tricks to help separate my emotions from my money — and hopefully stay on track to reach the financial goals I really care about.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
Those coffees before work? I love the first one, but the second (or third) is likely because I’m trying to do something nice for myself — and I need to get more creative in coming up with nice things that won’t touch my bank account, says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist based in Manhattan. “We live in such a consumer culture, where we automatically assume that to feel good, we need to spend.” One simple fix: Come up with ways to treat yourself that don't involve reaching for your wallet. It sounds so obvious, but for me, commenting on an ongoing text chain with a few favorite friends, cleaning out my bag (it sounds so weird, but I find cleaning my purse super zen) or just breathing is just as stimulating as a cup of coffee. Sometimes.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
Yep, it’s money diary time. Just writing a quick note about how you felt when you made a purchase — tired, stressed, annoyed, happy — can help you suss out when you’re driven to spend. I know I spend when I’m stressed, but for other people, happiness can be a trigger. The trick, says Clayman, is not to see any of the purchases as “good” or “bad.” Instead, you’re simply gathering information about how your financial decisions happen.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
According to Ford, so much of how we handle finances is related to how our parents modeled their own financial decisions. Sounds obvious, but Ford says that our money background can be a blind spot — especially if your parents were the type who kept money talk on the DL. I know that, for me, the fact that my parents never talked about money made me feel like it was something to be hidden. Knowing that will make it easier to open up when talking big-deal purchases (like a house) with people in my life.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
“All financial decisions originate from emotions,” says Clayman. That said, you can break the cash-emotion loop. For one, Clayman advocates looking at your bank statement and credit card statements at the same time each week. That way, you’re not only looking when you’re panicking about money, which can create a negative association. I can also apply the same trick to my habit of avoiding invoices. If I set up the same time to tackle them each week, then I'll avoid panicking about how much cash is or isn't coming in.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
I still carry credit card debt from the six months of unpaid maternity leave I took after my daughter was born. But instead of bemoaning the crappy state of parental leave in the United States, Bari Tessler, a financial therapist and author of The Art Of Money, recommends reframing how I think about the debt. Instead of calling it "debt," think of it as "the commitment I made to my daughter." Yes, it's still debt, and yes it needs to be paid off, but by not thinking of it as a failure, I'm more likely to actually do something about it.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
Equally important whether you have a partner or not, Tessler recommends taking time each week to think financial goals. But make it seem nice and self-indulgent. "Light a candle, pour a glass of wine, and think of it as financial self-care," says Tessler. Yes, you're still going to think hard numbers and you're still going to come up with some financial goals. But doing it in a way that's nice, again, makes you more likely to do it. Sounds woo-woo, but as a woo-woo person, I really like this concept.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
"This is one of the top tips I give my clients," says Tessler. "Before a major purchase, see how your body feels." I tried this when I was browsing on TheRealReal, and a (very discounted) Mulberry purse caught my eye. I'd been working hard for the past few months and was pleased with how the extra work manifested in my bank account. I also really felt like I needed a treat. But my heart was racing and my shoulders tensed; I was putting the purse in my cart because of adrenaline, not true love. By stepping back from the laptop and vowing to assess the situation, I staved off the spontaneous purchase. Will I buy it down the road? Maybe. But for me, avoiding the "I need this right now" click is huge.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
I love to travel, and most of the purchases on my credit card are spontaneous trips I decide I can't afford not to take. But rather than see that as a weakness, Tessler recommends seeing it as a strength: I'm spontaneous and I love adventure, two attributes that are not at odds with being able to be good at money. Instead, Tessler recommends having a certain amount of cash each month I can do whatever I want with, guilt-free. This is advice we've recommended numerous times at R29, but the advice bears repeating: Money is a tool, and you can (and should) use it for things that make you happy.
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Illustrated by Chloe Serouss.
It's all a process, and less-than-ideal money behavior doesn't mean you're a bad person. Financial therapists agree: Getting rid of the shame is huge. Remember: It's your money — you need to use it in the way that works for your life.

Bottom line: I still flinch when I check my credit card balance online, and I just got a follow-up email from an editor asking me to please, please, please invoice already for a story that ran months ago. But I'm not as ashamed of my behavior — and I realize that a lot of it is NBD stuff that can be fixed with a little mindfulness.

I'm also so happy to know financial therapy is a thing. I feel like the connection between emotions and our bank accounts is so complex that it makes sense that someone should help you wade through the decisions you make. After all, it's so much more than "just" money — and it's time we recognized that.
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